Sartre’s Use of Hell as a Dramatic Device in the Play Huis Clos Analysis

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Sartre effectively uses hell as a dramatic device in his play ‘Huis Clos’ to explore philosophical themes such as the objectifying gaze of the other, self-deception, bad faith, and human freedom and responsibility. His approach challenges the audience’s preconceived notion of hell, encouraging introspection and uncomfortable self-reflection.

In my essay, I will discuss Sartre’s use of hell as a dramatic device to capture the attention of the audience and create mystery and tension. Unlike traditional depictions of hell with Satan, damned souls, and physical torture, Sartre presents a subtler and psychological version of hell. The play “Huis Clos” portrays hell as a stuffy drawing room decorated in the Style of the Second Empire. There are no windows, mirrors, and only one locked entrance. Garcin, surprised by this version of hell, asks naively about the absence of torture instruments. Inez, also expecting a more traditional hell, mistakes Garcin for the torturer. Sartre challenges the audience’s beliefs about hell by depicting it in familiar surroundings.

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Surely hell cannot be a room with three people in it? Surely it must be more severe than this? It goes against everything we are hard wired to believe. From a young age we learn that familiar equals safe and in placing Hell in an unassuming drawing room Sartre effectively destroys this notion. By showing ‘hell is other people’ Sartre engages the audience and causes them to become introspective. It makes the audience think of their own sins, have they too like the characters in the play caused hell for other people?

We cannot deny that we have the ability to cause pain and suffering to others, as demonstrated by Garcin, Inez, and Estelle in the play ‘Huis Clos’. Getting to know someone allows us to understand their weaknesses and use them against them. This is exemplified several times throughout the play, as Garcin, Inez, and Estelle exploit each other’s flaws and reasons for being in hell. Sartre effectively exposes this darker aspect of human nature.

It also demonstrates to the audience that one cannot conceal their true identity or the negative decisions they have made. The play’s clear message of ‘your sins will find you out’ resonates with both audiences and critics, evoking discomfort and unease in them. Sartre effectively captivates the audience by using hell as a dramatic tool, creating a tense atmosphere. The brilliance of this play lies in its simplicity, with only one room and three characters. By portraying hell as a cramped and confined space occupied by only three individuals, Sartre compels the characters to interact with each other.

The close setting amplifies their suffering and torment towards each other, with no means of escape. They cannot evade each other’s gaze or judgment, which leads to intricate dynamics within the group as they make demands of one another. Estelle discloses her longing to be with Garcin, and he reciprocates but hesitates to kiss her, instead requesting her trust. He questions whether he was a coward for fleeing the army and expresses uncertainty about the morality of his choices. Garcin implores Estelle to believe in him.

Estelle declares her love for Garcin, while Garcin believes they can escape from hell. Inez warns Garcin about Estelle’s dishonesty, which leads him to disdainfully dismiss both women. Frustrated, Garcin approaches the door in search of an exit. He attempts to summon the valet using the bell, but it fails to produce any result. As he persistently pounds on the door, Estelle pleads with him to stay and promises to accompany him. To their surprise, the door suddenly swings open. Inez mocks Garcin by suggesting that he may now leave. However, he discovers that he does not wish to depart, and the women hesitate as well. Estelle tries to persuade Inez to leave so she and Garcin can be alone, yet Garcin reveals his decision to stay because of Inez.

He is entirely preoccupied with how she perceives him and earnestly seeks her approval. Garcin promises that he will not depart from the room unless Inez expresses her belief in him. She does not, and Garcin, unable to exercise his freedom, instead chooses imprisonment. He concludes, “Hell is—other people!” It is evident from this statement that the characters in Huis Clos provide each other with the ammunition to destroy themselves. They both resist and rely on each other. Initially, Garcin pleads for the women to stay silent, but then finds himself relying on them to validate his masculinity.

In declaring her love for Estelle, Inez gives Garcin the ammunition to torture her. Estelle relies on both Inez and Garcin to feel beautiful and feminine. Inez serves as her mirror, while Garcin fulfills her need for physical affection. The dynamics among them in Hell mirror their dysfunctional relationships on earth. Even in the afterlife, they remain trapped by their past personas. Garcin continues to avoid accountability, Estelle remains self-absorbed and desperate for attention, and Inez remains cruel as ever.

Sartre’s play explores the intertwined concepts of freedom and responsibility, stemming from his belief that “existence precedes essence.” According to Sartre, individuals possess inherent freedom and are accountable for every aspect of themselves, including their consciousness and behavior. In other words, absolute freedom entails absolute responsibility. Even those who reject responsibility and claim disassociation from their actions still bear responsibility for the consequences resulting from their lack of action.

The fear and anxiety of taking responsibility often causes people to avoid their freedom and let others decide for them, resulting in a state of bad faith. This explains why Garcin cannot leave the room even when the door is open; he cannot confront the responsibility of facing his decision to escape his country and instead relies on Inez to judge him and define his essence. Likewise, Estelle believes she only exists when she sees herself in a mirror, perceiving herself as others do.

Inez takes on the role of Estelle’s “mirror” and asserts that Estelle has a blemish on her face. Estelle’s lack of authenticity leads her to adopt this external judgment as her true essence. Both Estelle and Garcin, in addition to being “condemned to be free,” willingly condemn themselves in order to avoid true freedom. Sartre’s main argument in the play is emphasized through this concept of bad faith: “Hell is other people.” By employing only three individuals in an empty room, Sartre creates moments of extreme suffering and hopelessness. Inez is unable to tolerate Garcin’s gaze because she believes he is constantly evaluating her.

In Inez’s perspective, she accuses him of “stealing” her face because she believes it is her responsibility. Consequently, Garcin’s mere presence diminishes Inez’s sense of independence. Additionally, both Garcin and Estelle hold on tightly to their pasts, continuously thinking about their friends and loved ones who remain on earth. They try to justify their existence by reflecting on their past experiences. Garcin explains that his “fate” is determined by how others evaluate his past actions. However, Inez finds her past meaningless and unreachable, preferring to live in the present moment instead.

In the passage, Inez asserts that nothing remains of her on earth and she emphasizes to others that their possessions are only present in the current realm. Instead of defining her identity based on her past self, she proclaims her ability to choose her essence in the present moment, even within the confines of hell. Inez stands out as the sole character in the play who actively faces her responsibilities and acknowledges her suffering – an essential step towards affirming her existence. As Sartre elucidated, life begins after one surpasses despair. Hence, Sartre’s ingenious use of hell as a theatrical tool in this play is remarkable.

Sartre effectively explores philosophical beliefs such as bad faith, the intensifying gaze of the other, the rights and responsibilities that come with human freedom, and self-deception by placing three characters into a locked room. In doing so, he not only communicates his ideas but also engages with the audience, keeping them interested and allowing them to participate in the psychological drama. (Source: Sartre’s Acts for Life, pg73, SparkNotes)

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Sartre’s Use of Hell as a Dramatic Device in the Play Huis Clos Analysis. (2018, Mar 02). Retrieved from

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